Fdd's overnight brief

May 19, 2020

In The News


When Iran began to reopen late last month, commuters packed subways and buses, young people lined up for takeout hamburgers and pizza, and traffic snarled highways.[…] Three weeks later, the country has been hit by a new surge of coronavirus cases, according to health officials in some of the eight provinces where the numbers have spiked again. – New York Times

On May 9, shipping traffic at Iran’s bustling Shahid Rajaee port terminal came to an abrupt and inexplicable halt. […]The attack, which snarled traffic around the port for days, was carried out by Israeli operatives, presumably in retaliation for an earlier attempt to penetrate computers that operate rural water distribution systems in Israel, according to intelligence and cybersecurity officials familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

Iran’s parliament on Monday approved legislation barring any cooperation with Israel, including the use of any Israeli computer hardware or software, and branding any such cooperation an act against God. – Times of Israel

Iran has begun withdrawing forces from Syria, Israel’s departing defence minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday. Mr Bennett also urged his successor, Benny Gantz, to maintain pressure on Iran, saying Iran’s pull-out could be reversed. – The National

Dexter Filkins writes: Many Iranians I spoke to believed that the regime would strike again, in an attempt to humiliate Trump before the election in November. Some told me that it might try to take American hostages—evoking memories of the Embassy seizure in 1979, which helped destroy Jimmy Carter’s Presidency. One academic with ties to the Iranian leadership said, “I think the fate of Trump lies in the hands of Tehran.” – New Yorker

Michael Rubin writes: Whereas once the Iranian Navy was the pride of state, today it has become a shadow of its former self. As Iranian regime rhetoric races ahead of the country’s military capability, however, incidents like the Konarak friendly-fire incident have become more likely. The only question for Tehran will be whether utilizing the navy for military bluster and great power pretensions is worth the cost in both Iranian lives and diplomatic embarrassment. – The National Interest


The United Nations Syria mediator urged the United States and Russia on Monday to make the most of “some calm” in the war-torn country and talk with each other about a push for peace. – Reuters

A former Syrian secret police colonel testified in a German court Monday that he was not involved in the torture of opponents of the regime of President Bashar Assad, in the first war crimes trial outside Syria linked to the country’s years-long conflict. – Associated Press

Ehud Yaari writes: When striving to subdue civilian populations, the Syrian army tends to rely on ranged firepower rather than infantry assaults. If these indiscriminate tactics are applied in Deraa, the death toll could be very steep.[…] In addition, these dynamics would pave the way for Iran to bolster its local proxies (e.g., “Battalion 313”) and entice unemployed youths to enlist by offering them salaries—perhaps including some of the 7,000 former rebels who used to receive assistance from the Israel Defense Forces. This could in turn give the IRGC and Hezbollah an opportunity to increase their own presence in Deraa’s western countryside facing the Golan, a longstanding Israeli redline. – Washington Institute

Ammar Shams Aldin writes: The notion of separation of powers in the constitution is designed to hinder the aggregation of political and economic power. Syria’s economy will continue to suffer until political power is constrained and directed toward limited objectives. The hope is that a new constitution, if taken seriously and properly implemented, will help Syria transition from a state whose institutions, rules, and policies depend on the dictates of its leadership to one where the distribution of power is restructured so that the lower levels of government can take on a greater role. – Middle East Institute


Walter Russell Mead writes: As speculation intensifies over possible Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, the Palestinian movement faces its greatest crisis since Israel became a state. […]Faced with a worse crisis today, Arafat’s successors should be equally bold and accept one of the peace plans put forward by Israeli prime ministers since 2001 as the basis for negotiations for a final peace. […]Unfortunately, a weak and divided Palestinian Authority is unlikely to take such a controversial step on its own. – Wall Street Journal

Asher Fredman writes: Netanyahu will doubtless continue to play the leading role in the most important diplomatic efforts. Israel has already gained a talented and extremely hardworking representative to the United Nations (and come November, to the US), with the appointment of Gilad Erdan. One must hope that all of the other relevant ministerial and ambassadorial appointments in the new government will be similarly successful. – Jerusalem Post


A rocket landed on an empty house inside the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad without causing any casualties, military statement said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Fears of increased domestic violence during Iraq’s coronavirus lockdown will spur the new government to push through long-stalled legislation to protect victims, the head of the cabinet’s women’s rights department said on Monday. – Reuters

Renad Mansour writes: Former head of intelligence Mustafa al-Kadhimi is set to lead the country through an economic crisis stemming from a collapse in the oil price, a health crisis caused by an inadequate coronavirus response, and a potential security crisis due to a resurgent Islamic State. But the root of all these crises is political. Over the past few years, Iraq’s ruling elite has become less able to respond to the needs of its citizens. As protesters in the squares of Baghdad and the country’s south continue to call for revolution, the political elites are engulfed in infighting, vying for control of ministries and what’s left in the state coffers. – Foreign Policy

Gulf States

A handful of prominent jailed Saudis and their allies, concluding they are unlikely to win release by pleading directly with their own government, are planning to press their cases in Washington, including by hiring lobbyists with connections in President Trump’s orbit. – New York Times

Against the backdrop of the high tension between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Saudi daily ‘Okaz published an unusually harsh article by Sattam bin Hadbaa mocking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. […]Through this story, the writer implies that Erdogan, too, dreams of leading the world and renewing the glory of the Ottoman empire, but in reality he is more like a gang-leader who exploits the fools who admire him. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Bilal Y. Saab and Mick Mulroy write: It will not be easy for the GCC states. They cannot afford to increasingly challenge the current U.S. administration on Iran, because it might double down on its latest decision to withdraw some Patriot missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia and pull out all American troops and equipment stationed on their territory. The U.S. already threatened to do that, had Saudi Arabia not stopped its recent oil price war with Russia. – Middle East Institute


Pro-Beijing lawmakers on Monday regained control of a committee crucial to passing a proposed law that would criminalize disrespect of China’s national anthem here after scuffles broke out in the city’s Legislative Council for the second time this month. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on the world Monday to rally behind the World Health Organization and support developing countries as he opened a WHO annual assembly after weeks of acrimony between China and the United States over a proposal to investigate the origins of covid-19. – Washington Post

As the coronavirus spread around the globe, Pakistan’s foreign minister called his counterpart in Beijing last month with an urgent request: The country’s economy was nose-diving, and the government needed to restructure billions of dollars of Chinese loans.[…] With each request, China’s drive to become the developing world’s biggest banker is backfiring. – New York Times

Robert B. Zoellick writes: The U.S. approach toward China now relies on confrontation and accusation. Yet in diplomacy, as in war, the other side gets a vote. […]The U.S. must have the military means to deter aggression against vital interests and allies. America should also promote the cause of freedom, which hasn’t been a Trump priority, and be a steady friend to other free countries. – Wall Street Journal

Tom Rogan writes: China’s new rhetoric is simply about buying time. So, yes, we should expect more pleasant words from Beijing toward international organizations. But when it comes to the crunch, those words will be divorced from any significant positive action. As is always and ever the case with the Chinese Communist Party, it ultimately cares only about self-preservation. – Washington Examiner

John Calabrese writes: In the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the impending global economic downturn, China will have little choice but to recalibrate its BRI ambitions. This reassessment is likely to lead to more selective and limited outbound investments in new large-scale Belt and Road projects in the short term. However, protecting its equities in the Middle East requires that China project itself as a dependable partner. While China and its regional partners might have to adjust their expectations and their targets, both sides have expended too much financial and political capital to forsake the Maritime Silk Road. – Middle East Institute


President Trump on Monday declared that the United States had “never really fought to win” in Afghanistan, except early in the nearly two-decade-long war, making a sweeping statement about military efforts as thousands of U.S. troops continue to serve, and sometimes die, in counterinsurgent operations there. – Washington Post

The Taliban claimed a deadly attack on an Afghan intelligence agency post Monday, even as they urged the new power-sharing government to accelerate a prisoner swap to pave the way for talks. – Agence France-Presse

A senior U.S. envoy left for Doha and Kabul on Sunday to press Taliban and Afghan government officials to open peace talks that the United States hopes will allow it to withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. State Department said. – Reuters

The United Nations on Tuesday called for an immediate reduction of violence in Afghanistan, warning that civilian deaths by both the Taliban and Afghan security forces are on the increase. The U.N. mission also expressed concern about stepped-up attacks and brutality of the Islamic State group. – Associated Press


China effectively banned Australian barley imports after concluding Canberra’s water market was a subsidy for growers, documents showed on Tuesday, a position Australian government sources described as ludicrous. – Reuters

Taiwan’s quest to participate in the World Health Assembly ended with the opening of the international forum, despite U.S. support and global outrage over China’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. – Washington Examiner

Taiwan is fearful that Beijing will step up direct military pressure this year in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, with increasingly frequent incursions into airspace traditionally respected as a safety buffer zone. – Financial Times

Gary J. Schmitt and Michael Mazza write: Taipei might not welcome an effort to establish formal diplomatic ties at the moment, a move that could precipitate crisis at a time when China is weakened and poised to lash out. However, to deter China now and in the years ahead, Washington needs to begin the process of breaking out of the policy vises that have prevented it from bringing Taiwan in from the cold and, in turn, shoring up America’s own strategic position in Asia. – The American Interest

Aparna Pande writes: The Covid pandemic offers India and the United States an opportunity to bolster their partnership. The large-scale loss of human life, social disruption, and economic devastation caused by the pandemic will almost certainly be followed by massive rehabilitation efforts. During that phase, India-US cooperation, and American encouragement of India’s role as a regional leader could help foster a global order that maintains ascendancy of democracies, especially against the rise of an authoritarian China. – Hudson Institute

Tom Cotton writes: The bureaucrats at the World Health Organization are unlikely to give Taiwan the recognition it deserves—not with the CCP lobbying furiously against it. So it’s up to the United States to stand up for Taiwan to ensure its contributions are acknowledged and its democratic aspirations are respected. – Newsweek


The top health official for the Russian republic of Dagestan says the Kremlin has vastly underreported the number of coronavirus infections and deaths in his region, with the actual death toll more than 20 times Moscow’s official figure. – Business Insider

Boris Vishnevsky, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta and a St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy for the liberal Yabloko party wrote a column explaining why authoritarianism in Russia has failed the test of the coronavirus crisis, despite its pretensions to be ideally equipped to handle such crises. Vishnevsky explains that the system is severely handicapped by its rapacity, its promotion of personnel. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Leon Aron and Ryan Berg write: While the government of Venezuela has looked increasingly shaky because of the coronavirus and a shortage of gasoline, Vladimir Putin is emerging again as a critical lifeline for the embattled regime. As the United States pushes for political change in Venezuela, the Russian state owned oil company Rosneft has helped Nicolas Maduro circumvent American sanctions by exporting as much as 70 percent of its oil through its subsidiaries when few companies dared to touch it. – The Hill


Even as Germany is celebrated as Europe’s foremost example of pandemic management, an eclectic protest movement that began last month with a few dozen people marching against coronavirus restrictions has ballooned into more than 10,000 demonstrators in cities across the country. – New York Times

Faced with economic calamity and the threat of the coronavirus further fracturing the European Union, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Monday broke with decades of German economic orthodoxy and agreed to back the idea of collective European debt to help those countries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. – New York Times

Defectors from Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party announced the creation of a new group in France’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday, depriving the president of an outright majority and raising pressure for more left-wing policies. – Reuters

Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban declared victory over Covid-19 on Saturday, announcing that from Monday the lockdown would be lifted in Budapest. But as the capital, which has been the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic in Hungary, emerges from two months of restrictions, Mr Orban faces twin problems: a struggling health system and a newly emboldened opposition. – Financial Times

The Americas

As two jets took off from an airport in British Columbia on Sunday morning, one suddenly peeled away from its partner. The plane turned sharply up and banked left off its course before flipping into a nose dive and spinning as it dropped from the sky. – Washington Post

Police and protesters clashed in Santiago on Monday amid a city-wide lockdown meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus as local officials warned that food shortages had hit one of the Chilean capital´s poorest neighborhoods. – Reuters

Steven Zhou writes: International, “globalist” organizations have long been favorite targets of Canada’s far-right, and the pandemic provides fresh opportunity to attack these bodies with newly concocted narratives. Analysts have tracked this conspiracy-theory-fueled worldview for months—but it’s now become a fixture in Canada’s national conversations on the pandemic. – Foreign Policy


Ethical hacking company HackerOne has achieved authorization for use by federal agencies as the government prepares to create vulnerability disclosure programs for public-facing websites. – Defense News

Booz Allen Hamilton won a five-year, $800 million task order to provide artificial intelligence services to the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC). – Defense News

Cyber threats are part of the new way of war and will becoming increasingly common. Countries such as Iran have developed cyber capabilities, and other countries, such as the US, Russia and China may seek to act in the cyber realm as they jockey for power in the world. – Jerusalem Post


The Indian Navy is expanding its fleet of anti-submarine warfare helicopters with a $904-million buy of 24 Sikorsky MH-60Rs, company officials said on Friday. – USNI News

Dynetics will help DARPA scale up its artificial intelligence air-to-air combat effort, the company said May 6, potentially enabling a pilot to control a fleet of unmanned platforms in a dogfight. – C4ISRNET

The Pentagon has proposed legislation that aims to end reliance on China for rare earth minerals critical to the manufacturing of missiles and munitions, hypersonic weapons and radiation hardened electronics, by making targeted investments. – Defense News

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: The new National Security Strategy (NSS) issued on December 18, 2017, called for the United States to focus on competition with China and Russia in order to focus on the potential military threat they posed to the United States. This call to look beyond the current U.S. emphasis on counterterrorism was all too valid, but its implementation has since focused far too narrowly on the military dimension and on providing each military service all of the U.S. military forces that are needed to fight “worst case” wars. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Long War

The Supreme Court sided Monday with victims of al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, ruling unanimously that they were eligible for punitive damages from Sudan, which was found to have assisted the terror organization. – Wall Street Journal

A Saudi aviation student who killed three people last year at a Florida Navy base had extensive ties to al Qaeda, top U.S. law-enforcement officials said Monday as they accused Apple Inc. of stalling the probe by refusing to help unlock the shooter’s phones. – Wall Street Journal

A U.N. investigative team says it has made “significant progress” in collecting new sources of evidence in Iraq against Islamic State extremists, including over 2 million call records that should strengthen cases against perpetrators of crimes against the Yazidi minority in 2014. – Associated Press

Trump Administration

Attorney General William Barr said Monday he didn’t expect former President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden to be investigated as part of an examination of the origins of a federal probe into whether the 2016 Trump campaign colluded with Russia. – Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced growing political pressure Monday as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress questioned the Trump administration’s decision to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was conducting inquiries concerning Mr. Pompeo. – Wall Street Journal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) selected Sen. Marco Rubio to temporarily lead the Senate Intelligence Committee. Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican, will fill in for Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), who stepped aside temporarily as head of the panel last week after federal agents seized his cellphone in their investigation of stock trades he made shortly before the coronavirus outbreak sent markets spiraling. Mr. Burr has denied any wrongdoing. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump threatened to permanently cut off funding to the World Health Organization and revoke U.S. membership if the group doesn’t make changes meant to curb what he called its pro-China bias. – Wall Street Journal

The State Department inspector general fired by President Trump on Friday was in the final stages of an investigation into whether the administration had unlawfully declared an “emergency” last year to allow the resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their air war in Yemen. – New York Times

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham is scheduling a vote that would allow him to subpoena more than 50 current and former officials who were involved in the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, as President Donald Trump and his allies have launched a broad, election-year attack on the investigation as a “deep state” conspiracy. – Associated Press

President Donald Trump on Monday made the surprise announcement that he is taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that his own government experts say is not suitable for fighting the novel coronavirus. Trump, noting that he has tested negative for the virus and shows no symptoms, said he’d been taking the drug as a preventative measure for about a week and a half. – Agence France-Presse

Michael Rubin writes: In the years preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the White House and State Department were willfully blind to the consequences of Saudi Arabia promoting extremism. […]Today, the same pattern has emerged, with Erdogan whispering sweet nothings into the ears of Presidents Barack Obama and Trump. Turkey today, however, is different from the Saudi Arabia of decades past, for Turkey not only fuels and funds militancy more directly than the Saudis ever did but arms it as well. – Washington Examiner

David A. Graham writes: President Donald Trump’s Friday-night firing of Steve Linick, the inspector general for the State Department, is more than a scandal about alleged abuse of office by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state—though it is that.[…] If Trump’s decimation of the inspectors general is allowed to stand—and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be—it will remove one of the last remaining checks on the executive branch. – Defense One